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January 14, 2005

The Motorcycle Diaries

2004.USA.Salles

3.0 / 4.0

In Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky, two characters explain the distinction between tourist and traveller:

“A tourist is someone who thinks about going home the moment they arrive, Tunner. Whereas a traveler might not come back at all.”

Based on the diary of a young Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries is less a political statement or exploration of the early life of the revolutionary than it is a celebration of the journey. In following Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado on their trip across South America, Salles captures the perhaps indescribable feeling of adventure and discovery known to all travellers. Hints at Guevara’s future are wisely kept in the background, and break out at only a few key moments.

The most interesting aspect of The Motorcycle Diaries is its use of music. In the beginning, it originates strictly from outside the film’s world, imposed by the filmmaker, and is associated with the road. The film’s score dominates shots of Guevara and Granado speeding along on their motorcycle (also prominent are shots of the motorcycle crashing, which bring to mind another journey: the Stations of the Cross). However, despite the non-film world origin of the music, the two main characters hear it as clearly as the viewer, in the sense that it is synonymous with the lure of the open road. In this context, the entire film can be seen as an attempt by the two characters, but especially by Guevara, to find the film world source of the music that they hear but cannot understand. For example, Guevara is intrigued by the music performed by an orchestra at the house of his wealthy girlfriend’s father but eventually accepts, as does the viewer, that the music is not the same as the music on the road. Romantic love and money, Salles argues, cannot bring Guevara happiness or fulfilment. Neither can technology or science, as evidenced by the manner in which the music of a Chilean mechanic abruptly cuts off, yet another false lead. The first true source of music, discovered by Granado, comes at a leper colony as Granado leads a band of amateur percussionists in an intense jam session. It is here that he discovers his calling, and it is this moment that shapes the rest of his life. Guevara does not have a parallel onscreen experience, but Salles leaves no doubt as to his future. As the end credits roll over shots of various poor characters from the film, the score, exactly the same music as associated with the road, forges a direct link between those farmers, labourers, and unemployed and the music. For Guevara, it is these people that create the music in his life.

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